Ideal Fish reels in new customer base amid restaurant closures

Connecticut’s Brass City can now also be called the Mediterranean Sea Bass City.

In a 63,000-square-foot former button and artillery manufacturing plant at 64 Avenue of Industry in Waterbury, Ideal Fish in 2018 began harvesting European bass, commonly known as branzino, which is popular among high-end restaurants and grocery stores that largely rely on farming operations in the Mediterranean Sea for their supply (the U.S. imports the majority of its seafood).

Ideal Fish President and CEO Eric Pederson said he saw an opportunity a few years back to kickstart domestic production to serve the lucrative East Coast seafood market that craves both fresh and sustainable branzino, a flaky silver-skinned fish.

A Mediterranean sea bass raised at Ideal Fish’s 63,000-square-foot Waterbury facility.

He began leasing the Waterbury facility in 2016, spent about two years building it out — equipping it with 25,000-gallon water tanks and other technology — and employs an innovative recirculating aquaculture system that filters out and recovers fish waste and uneaten feed, which is eventually turned into fertilizer for Connecticut land-based farmers.

The end product is a more sustainable fish farming operation that is able to get its products to consumers quicker (within 24 hours of a harvest vs. a week or so from overseas competitors). The company also doesn’t use antibiotics to rear its fish.

Ideal Fish quickly gained a following, raising upwards of $20 million from domestic and international investors and growing into a $3-million to $5-million company primarily selling to restaurants and high-end grocery stores like Kings Food Markets, Fairway Food Market and Balducci’s.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“As the shelter-in-place policies came about and restaurants were forced to close, we lost nearly 60% of revenues overnight,” said Pederson, a former Wall Street banker who earned his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

While grocery store sales have remained strong and even picked up a bit, Pederson said his nascent company faced immediate operational and financial challenges that forced him and his team to think outside-of-the-box and pivot quickly.

On the sales front, Pederson said he needed to expand his customer base so he hired an outside consultant in mid-March to launch an e-commerce platform to sell directly to consumers who crave healthy, fresh and local food. Ideal Fish now sells branzino on its website and through Amazon — it’s $15.99 for a whole fish and $24.99 for four filets. It also recently added smoked Mediterranean sea bass to its product line.

The moves have paid dividends as Ideal Fish has already recouped about half of its lost restaurant revenues in just two months. The e-commerce platform will become a permanent part of the business, Pederson said.

Photo | Contributed. Ideal Fish distributes its sea bass to restaurants and high-end grocery stores like Kings Food Markets, Fairway Food Market and Balducci’s.

Financially, the company remains well capitalized and has gotten support from its investors as well as loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

The DECD funds helped finance the e-commerce platform and smoking equipment.

On the operational side, Pederson said his company had to creatively manage its fish population while sales dropped off to prevent overcrowding in tanks. To do that, they’ve reduced feed rates and moved large fish into separate tanks.

He also had to ensure his 10 full-time employees remained healthy so he split them into two groups that rotate roles every 14 days; half manage the farming operations, while the other half handle administrative work at home.

“We needed to mitigate risk in case there was an outbreak,” he said. “Luckily we haven’t had any outbreaks.”

Ideal Fish also hasn’t had any layoffs, although it did implement a hiring freeze, Pederson said.

So far, the company has been able to ride out the economic uncertainty and Pederson remains bullish about the future. He’s already plotting growth opportunities including opening a second Waterbury facility to harvest salmon and other fish species.

In the meantime, Ideal Fish will begin selling salmon this year sourced from another domestic recirculating aquaculture facility. He’s projecting sales will hit about $6.5 million by the end of 2021.

“This is an industry that Connecticut needs to develop,” Pederson said. “Connecticut is a fantastic place to build out this industry because it’s between the major seafood market between Boston and Washington D.C. and local fish production is key.”

By Greg Bordonaro  |  Updated: June 15, 2020

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